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Palm Springs Hoteliers Balk at Tax Plan for Spring Break : City revenues: The police chief proposes a temporary $4 room levy as the resort looks for a way to cover the extra expense of student invasions.

February 19, 1990|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A proposal to hike the nightly bed tax in Palm Springs by $4 during the bustling spring break period has sparked howls of protest from the city's hoteliers, who argue that the plan unfairly burdens their industry and could drive prospective visitors to other nearby resorts.

Palm Springs Police Chief Donald Burnett suggested the temporary tax increase as a way to cover the cost of extra police services required during the annual spring vacation, when throngs of rowdy high school and college students invade the desert city.

Burnett said the city spent $330,000 last year on officer overtime and assistance from other law enforcement agencies called in to help control the young revelers. Adding a flat fee of $4 per night to each room charge would generate more than enough to cover that bill, Burnett estimated.

"I believe the people who create the need for the additional police service should pay for that service," Burnett wrote in a letter to hotel owners earlier this month.

In an interview, Mayor Sonny Bono endorsed the concept of saddling spring break visitors with the law enforcement tab, but said he was not sure Burnett's plan is the best vehicle.

"What I like about it is we have finally departed from being total victims of Easter vacation," Bono said. "The notion I have is let's stick the kids with the bill."

The mayor added that the annual spring bacchanal--which attracts thousands of often unruly students--is a loathsome tradition he would like to end: "If I could wave a wand and make it go away, I would," Bono said. "I wish I could send them up into the hills somewhere."

Hoteliers, already waging a tough battle for business against competitors in neighboring cities, were quick to issue their response to Burnett's tax plan: Forget it.

Officials at large and small hotels agree the proposal unfairly singles out their industry and would penalize non-students vacationing in town during spring break.

Moreover, they argue that paying for extra police protection on occasion is part of the burden Palm Springs must shoulder if it wants to be a tourist town. About 21% of the city's annual operating budget of $32 million comes from bed tax revenue.

"This is the most harebrained idea I've ever heard," said Chuck Murawski, owner of the 33-room Villa Royale Inn and a candidate for the Palm Springs City Council. "Do we want to send a message to kids that Palm Springs doesn't want them? They're our future guests. And they're not all troublemakers."

Charles Roulet, general manager of the Palm Springs Marquis Hotel and Villas, noted that his 267-room property is among many that do not cater to youths, but still would be hit by the tax.

"Should my clients have to pay $4 extra? That is unfair punishment," Roulet said.

Echoing Roulet is Erich Langmann, who owns the 158-room Palm Springs Travelodge, a centrally located inn popular with students. Langmann said many hoteliers already suffer an added financial drain because of headaches caused by the annual influx of youths.

"I spend $8,000 to $10,000 a week on private security during the break to take pressure off the police," Langmann said. "So why don't they reach in someone else's pocket for this? How about the restaurants?"

Early last week, 60 hotel industry officials voted unanimously to fight Burnett's plan: "People were furious," Murawski said. "The basic feeling was we want his head on a platter."

Despite such hostility, Burnett, who took over as police chief in October, met with hoteliers Thursday to discuss their concerns and solicit suggestions for other financing strategies. He said he is open to other ideas, but feels strongly that something should be done to cover the "extraordinary expense we incur" because of the influx of students.

The chief has asked the city attorney to draft an ordinance authorizing the $4 increase, but any change in the 9% transient occupancy tax must first be approved by the City Council. The council is to consider the matter Tuesday.

The financial burden of hosting spring break celebrants grew markedly heavier for Palm Springs in 1987, one year after thousands of vacationing students created unprecedented bedlam--committing assaults, ripping clothes off women and hurling rocks and bottles at police and merchants.

Police made 530 arrests that year, but they were clearly outmatched by the hordes of young people. Since then, wary city officials have contracted annually with the California Highway Patrol and the Riverside County Sheriff's Department for help.

This year, the spring break runs from April 6 to April 22. About 50 officers hired temporarily from other agencies will be on hand, and Palm Springs police will work 12-hour shifts.

BACKGROUND Each year, thousands of students flock to Palm Springs to spend their spring break under the desert sun. In 1986, the annual celebration turned ugly when some students committed assaults, ripped clothes off women and pelted police and merchants with bottles. Since then, wary city officials have beefed up patrols and sought help from other law enforcement agencies to better control the student throngs.

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